Berries on the brain

Why it’s smart to keep them in mind

Chicago Sun-Times - - WELL - BY JU­DITH C. THALHEIMER

Amer­i­cans are eat­ing more berries, and that’s a good idea. Be­sides be­ing packed with vi­ta­mins, min­er­als and fiber, berries are rich in flavonoids like an­tho­cyanins and fla­vanols. “Berries are col­or­ful be­cause of bioac­tive com­pounds like these,” says Navin­dra P. Seeram, Ph. D., an as­so­ciate pro­fes­sor in the Depart­ment of Bio­med­i­cal and Phar­ma­ceu­ti­cal Sciences at the Univer­sity of Rhode Is­land Col­lege of Phar­macy. “They pro­tect the berry, and those ben­e­fi­cial ef­fects are im­parted when we eat berries.”

Both ox­ida­tive stress and in­flam­ma­tory me­di­a­tors in the blood can cause dam­age to brain cells. Berries con­tain flavonoids, which have an­tiox­i­dant and anti- in­flam­ma­tory ef­fects that coun­ter­act, re­duce, and re­pair this dam­age. The blood- brain bar­rier pro­tects the brain from harm­ful cir­cu­lat­ing agents in our bod­ies, but “com­pounds like an­tho­cyanins can cross the blood- brain bar­rier,” says Seeram. “So they bring their pow­er­ful prop­er­ties right to the site of ac­tion.” Ac­cord­ing to Bar­bara Shukitt- Hale, Ph. D., a USDA re­search psy­chol­o­gist, we don’t fully un­der­stand yet why berries are so good for the brain, but it is most likely due to the an­tiox­i­dant and anti- in­flam­ma­tory po­ten­tial of these com­pounds.

Most of the ev­i­dence for berries and brain health comes from an­i­mal stud­ies, but that is chang­ing, says Shukitt- Hale. “In the last five to six years, we’ve started stud­ies in hu­mans, and the data com­ing in from those stud­ies are very promis­ing.” Here’s what we know so far about what berries may do for the brain:

Im­prove mem­ory. A new study found that both younger and older adults who ate flavonoid- rich blue­ber­ries showed im­prove­ments in mem­ory and at­ten­tion- based tasks, as well as in­creased blood flow to key ar­eas of the brain. “In other stud­ies, older adults given blue­ber­ries or straw­ber­ries for three months did bet­ter on mem­ory tests than those who got a placebo,” says Shukitt- Hale. A pi­lot study that gave chil­dren ( 8- 10 years old) a flavonoidrich blue­berry drink showed a boost to mem­ory in that age group as well.

Slow brain ag­ing. Berries may help fight the nat­u­ral de­cline in brain func­tion that comes with ag­ing. “At least in an­i­mals, eat­ing blue­ber­ries and straw­ber­ries has been shown to in­crease the num­ber of new neu­rons made in the brain, and how many branches neu­rons have,” says Shukitt- Hale. “We’ve also seen im­prove­ment in brain sig­nal­ing and the po­ten­tial of neu­ro­trans­mit­ters. We need to study this in hu­mans to know for sure.”

Ward off de­men­tia. Clogged veins and ar­ter­ies can slow blood flow to the brain, caus­ing vas­cu­lar de­men­tia. A diet high in veg­eta­bles and fruits like berries pro­tects vas­cu­lar health, but berries also pro­tect against de­men­tia in other ways. An­tho­cyanins in fruits, like black­ber­ries, blue­ber­ries, rasp­ber­ries and straw­ber­ries, pro­tect the brain from ox­ida­tive stress, which has been shown to be a ma­jor con­trib­u­tor to neu­rode­gen­er­a­tive dis­or­ders like Alzheimer’s dis­ease.

And more. In an an­i­mal model of post- trau­matic stress dis­or­der, blue­ber­ries re­duced ox­ida­tive stress and in­flam­ma­tion and re­stored neu­ro­trans­mit­ter im­bal­ances. An­other an­i­mal study showed blue­ber­ries and rasp­ber­ries may help pro­tect against the neg­a­tive ef­fects a high fat diet can have on the brain.

There’s an im­pres­sive body of sci­ence demon­strat­ing ben­e­fits of berries for cog­ni­tive per­for­mance and brain func­tion, and the num­ber of con­trolled hu­man tri­als is in­creas­ing. While the bulk of re­search has been done on blue­ber­ries, other berries ( like black­ber­ries, rasp­ber­ries and straw­ber­ries) have many of the same bioac­tive com­pounds. “Berries are very nu­tri­ent dense, and they have di­ver­sity of nat­u­ral com­pounds that make them ex­tra pow­er­ful,” says Seeram.

Ex­perts ad­vise in­clud­ing a va­ri­ety of col­or­ful berries in your diet on a reg­u­lar ba­sis. “Eat­ing berries reg­u­larly will en­sure the ben­e­fi­cial com­pounds will be in your cir­cu­la­tory sys­tem to dampen any harm that comes along,” says Seeram.


An­tho­cyanins in fruits, like black­ber­ries, blue­ber­ries, rasp­ber­ries and straw­ber­ries, pro­tect the brain from ox­ida­tive stress, which has been shown to con­trib­ute to neu­rode­gen­er­a­tive dis­or­ders.

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